On May 16 2009, it was the eighth stage of the Giro d’Italia and I felt fully prepared. Two hundred and nine kilometres from Morbegno, with a category one climb in the opening part of the stage. After climbing to Città Alta from Porta Garibaldi, the finish would be in the centre of Bergamo.
I already knew the closing part of the route from the 2007 Giro, and I knew it would be difficult. That was it: after 12 years as a professional, it would be “another day at the office” as they say in the peloton. I had no intuition as to what would really happen to me that day.
Back then, I was riding for the Rabobank team and it was my third Giro d’Italia. I didn’t consider myself to be an expert, but I knew a few Corsa Rosa secrets. I also had a soft spot for the race, given that I made my Grand Tour debut there in 1998 as a neo-pro.
My team-mate Denis Menchov had already won one of the seven stages ridden up to that point. That I know, but the reality is that I don’t really have any clear memory of it; perhaps just a little flashback where, as I’m crossing the line, I see Denis on the top of the podium lorry, receiving his prize as stage winner.
Alongside another team-mate, I stop, gesticulating and shouting words of congratulations. However, Denis being the good, cold Russian that he is, doesn’t break podium protocol to give us a hug and he keeps it low-key, thanking us with a smile. I don’t know if this really happened or if it’s just a figment of my imagination, but both of those alternatives are as valid as each other.
On the way to Bergamo, Denis was already lying fifth overall. It was no secret that he was one of the favourites to win the race and we were right behind him. All of our team’s energy centred on helping him to succeed and everything was going well.
I felt ready for the stage, yes, that one’s a real memory. Sat on the team bus next to Mauricio [Ardila], my roommate, I was reading a book as we travelled to the stage start. Then, as we descended a hairpin bend to the right, a car – I swear that it was a red Fiat Panda – braked suddenly, and due to the tight nature of the bend, was forced to reverse so our bus could pass.
A strange thing to remember, absurd and unimportant even, but also unique, as I don’t believe that any of the others who were there still keep it somewhere in their memory. For me, though, it remains an important recollection. Being the last thing I really remember, it carries symbolic weight. After that, nothing. Or perhaps a lot, both alternatives are as valid as each other. An indescribable blinding light accompanied by a feeling of infinite emptiness, and something white, all white. A white-stained nothingness.
We often refer to a bad or disastrous day as a dark one. The kind of dark that surrounded my family, team and friends that day, all the while ignoring the fact that I was swimming in white. And it isn’t some kind of metaphor, which is why I wrote earlier that this is something for which nobody can prepare you. A dazzling, shiny and pure white, but at the same time cold and enigmatic. A sort of deaf white, if you like, that’s if a colour can have sound.
I remember wandering around a place without a horizon beyond the whiteness, advancing without having any reference point to give me any certainty of actually doing so. White everywhere; up, down, to the sides – 360 degrees of white. A calm, relaxing white, but one that at the same time felt murky and claustrophobic; trapped in a limitless space.
I moved through it walking, running – ‘what are you doing, why are you running? Don’t you realise that you move forward at the same pace running as you do walking?’ – so I wasn’t really moving. ‘Where am I? What am I doing here? Why am I here? What do I have to do…?’
I don’t know how long that whiteness lasted, although I know it was a long time, exactly the number of days I was in a coma (many days, but not even I could point to a precise duration). It could have been a side effect of the morphine dose that helped put me into a coma, just as others affirm that it’s a mystical memory of an out-of-body experience.
I’m not sure now and I’ll never know with any certainty, in fact I’d rather forget it. What I do know is that the transition away from white and back to a world of colour was a gradual one.
As I opened my eyes, I moved from that glacial, serene shade to one that was warmer but blinding. Like an Eskimo, I could pick out thousands of different tones of white. Colour returned when I was able to look away from the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the resuscitation room at Bergamo hospital.
My position, immobile, forced me to look directly at them, but my eye muscles disobeyed their orders. I closed my eyes, thinking that it was similar to the sun – it gives us light but we can’t look directly at it. However, when you’re blinded by its rays, I thought, it leaves dark stains across your vision, stains that I couldn’t pick out anywhere.
With that colour came the angst and will to escape. I didn’t know who or where I was, nor what was happening. The only thing I knew was that I had to get out, without knowing where to or why. My only objective was to escape, but not a single part of my body reacted to the orders I gave.
The full length version of this article was originally published in Rouleur 19.3, our 2019 Giro d’Italia special. Download the Rouleur app to read it now